Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily


April 2017

The Lost Art of Listening

The Lost Art of Listening, Second Edition: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, by Michael P. Nichols, PhD

This book brought up a surprising number of emotions during the reading that have been lingering with me ever since. The book covers a full spectrum of interpersonal communications as a friend, spouse, and parent. Nichols not only offers suggestions for improving communications but also makes his own confessions of his own communications failures in those areas and as a professional listener in his counseling practice.

As an introvert I was surprised at the insight that this was often a defense mechanism for people who weren’t listened to as children. There’s a tendency, he says, to give up on being listened to creating a shell of isolation, busy-ness, and reserve as a way to avoid opening up old wounds. I could see that. I came from a family where people were naturally quiet with each other. Disturbing that quiet could be cause for reproach. This is probably what lead me to two marriages with partners who were bubbly, vivacious, and terrible listeners. My late wife was well-meaning but even our daughters avoided opening up to her because of her odd listening style. You would start with a story about something that happened during the day and she’d interrupt with “What were they wearing?” “What was the restaurant like?” “What did people order?” She interrupted flow, shushed people when she was busy, and threw in her own opinions about how the speaker should have acted with advice for future encounters.

We run across people like this every day, along with people who make themselves difficult to listen to by catching any open ear and telling in-depth stories that have no point. Trapped by some people like this I’ve actually stood at an office door, feet facing outward, looking over my shoulder, with the person continuing on as if I were hanging on every word.

Most of us face challenging people who ignore us or have no sense of boundaries. And few of us are good listeners ourselves. It’s more common to react than respond thoughtfully. Often we want to share similar experiences or offer advice, or something in the way others communicate will set off emotional reactions that have more to do with our life experiences than any actual content in the conversation.

Nichols covers multiple topics and situations dealing with coworkers, spouses, and others. Each chapter offers exercises along with tips on planning alternate ways of approaching people with whom we have problems communicating.

Along with opening up some memories that weren’t always pleasant I found myself cringing when I heard descriptions of ways I am a less than perfect listener. But the tips are useful and realistic. The most general is to simply be interested in what people say. So when a person says: “I had a terrible night’s sleep” you can avoid typical responses like “I did, too” or “Have you tried melatonin?” or “You should stop watching TV so late” and respond with things like: “That’s a shame. Why do you think that’s happening?” The ideas go far beyond what is generally described as “active listening” which, when poorly applied, can be more irritating than being ignored.

I also appreciated that Nichols took aim at some gender biases that have increased with the “men are from mars” pop-psy that developed over the past few decades. About the only gender difference he mentions himself is that women tend to talk to friends face-to-face while men tend to talk during shared activities. Dealing with others as individuals rather than gender types can eliminate tons of problems at the very start.

There are endless places where we can be better listeners. Nichols says this applies as much to newborns as it does to the elderly. We have an ongoing desire to be recognized as having lives worth understanding and emotions worth respecting.

He also give advice for dealing with people who tend to explode with anger, or who latch onto any sympathetic listener, or who have trouble opening up. He provides some understanding for their motivations along with concrete suggestions.

I don’t know whether this book will convert me from introvert to extrovert or perfect my listening skills but it definitely took me down some unexpected paths even as someone who considered myself an above average listener already.


The Book of Joan

The Book of Joan: A Novel, by Lidia Yuknavitch

It’s always exciting to find a book, particularly in a favorite genre, that pushes the barriers to an extreme. This is especially true when the book fits within a trope one normally avoids. I try to avoid post-apocalyptic sci-fi. It’s worn, generally an easy reach for poor writers, and devolves too often into zombies. There are exceptions, of course, when a truly great writer takes on the subject, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or in true classics like Earth Abides, one of the first books to cover the subject by George R. Stewart. But now, when one of the many booklists I receive mentions a book is “post-apocalyptic”, I scroll on by.

This is a book I took on twice in two days to absorb. I’ll admit it’s not a book for everybody. If, however, you’re as keen on sci-fi as I am I believe you’ll be running across this title in booklists for decades to come.

I should say first that this is a highly sexualized book. If that’s the kind of thing that makes you uncomfortable then move on, please. I’m not talking romance. In fact the human race has become physically desexualized through a catastrophe. Love exists, as do some hormonal cravings, but humans are no longer able to reproduce and even imitative attempts at sexuality have been forbidden on CIEL, the suborbital station hovering over earth where one of the principal narrators, Christine, lives. Bodies are bleached white, hairless, stripped of sexual organs. Christine spends time modifying her own body and the bodies of others with painful cauterizing lasers and other tools. At age 49 Christine only has a year to live, as those living on the station are killed and recycled at age 50.

This upper world is ruled by a sadistic emperor named Jean de Men, a former media personality and billionaire who became the leader on earth and later migrated the existing population to CIEL.

The remaining humans on earth have undergone the same physical transformations, with the exception of Joan of Dirt. As a young girl she underwent a different type of transformation which allows her to reach into the soil and create earthquakes and fissures. Otherwise she is the last remaining person on earth to have retained her sexuality, her skin color, and her hair. She is a soldier in the revolts against Jean de Men. When she’s captured she goes through a trial similar to the faux trials given to her namesake Joan of Arc by her English captors. And like that Joan, Jean de Men arranges for her to be burned at the stake. She is saved through a sleight of hand arranged by the woman she loves.

The remainder of the book is an increase in tension as the narrative passes between Joan and Chris which will end in the destruction of one of the three main entities in the book, Joan, Chris, or Jean.

It’s a perception of a world that’s both horrifying and mesmerizing with dozens of subtle themes on sex, love, power, and pain. As mentioned, it’s not a book that will be to the taste of everyone but it certainly sits comfortably in the company of books by other transformative sci-fi writers of the past 50 years like Delaney, Butler, and LeGuin.


And the Rest is History

And the Rest is History: Chronicles of St. Mary’s Book Eight, by Jodi Taylor

There are writers who, when I take on their books, I know will make me roll up my sleeves and do some serious brain work. And there are others that are brain candy. Or more like a sorbet you have after a meal course to “cleanse the palate”. Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St. Mary’s is like that. This isn’t to say that they are without content but the characters and dialogue are so much fun that the experience feels more like dessert.

St. Mary’s is a facility for time travelers that allows historians to go back in time to record historical events. Some of their funding is managed by discretely burying historical artifacts where they can be “discovered” and sold in modern times. The series from the start has been narrated by Madeleine Maxwell (Max to her friends) from her first day at St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research through all her time traveling adventures, loves, losses, and drinking bouts with the closed society within the confines of St. Mary’s.

And these are not Peabody and Sherman travels. Every one of the eight books has gone into great detail on historical events as Max and fellow historians look over the shoulder of historical figures to describe the on-scene action. In this volume the historians visit The Battle of Hastings along with some of the events leading to the Norman Conquest. The action also takes them to the Sack of Constantinople. Other books have imagined the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Cretaceous Period, and World War I. Some have been events I’d never heard of before, like King John’s lost treasure.

There is a love interest from the future: Leon Farrell who, after several books of romantic ups and downs, Max has married. And an evil figure from the future: Clive Roman, who appears here worse than ever. And the Time Police, who dog St. Mary’s at every turn.

Jodi Taylor manages to mix humor, history, and adventure into a series that is comfortable for its familiarity. And Taylor has been prolific. The first book in the series came out in 2013, so she’s averaging two books per year and that doesn’t count the free books for several holiday stories.

I never miss a new book in the series and have never been disappointed in one. If anything Taylor has gotten better at bringing characters to the edge of total disaster and saving them in the nick of time. I suppose, given the theme of time travel, you could read the books in any order, feeling like a time traveler yourself and thinking “I know where this is going and you don’t … yet.”


For We Are Many

For We Are Many: Bobiverse Volume 2, by Dennis E. Taylor

I really enjoyed the first book in this series We Are Legion (We Are Bob). This book picks up right where the first one left off. In fact it picks up so well that I can imagine a reader picking up this book and getting pretty lost without the first book under their belt. It’s not outlandishly confusing but I finished the first book a month or so ago and it took me some adjustment to remember who the characters were, why they were doing what they were doing, etc. There’s no introductory chapter and no attempt at a synopsis of earlier books. It jumps right in.

In the first volume Bob Johannsen is killed in a car accident after setting up instructions that his body be cryonically preserved. The next thing he is aware of is that he’s awake but unable to feel anything. He discovers that he’s been brought back to life with his mind placed in a computer. He and other preserved individuals have been drafted to become the consciousness of a Von Neumann probe. (A space vehicle that can take material from planets and asteroids and use that to reproduce, repair, or enlarge itself along the trip.) The hope is that he will be able to discover new planets that humans can inhabit now that they’ve nearly destroyed earth in a nuclear winter. Bob is successful and not only is able to create duplicate ships but begins inhabiting them with duplicates of himself. Each split off Bob has his memories up to the split but there are minute differences so that each has a slightly altered personality.

This book opens 40 years after volume one. The various Bobs (most of whom take on names of favorite movie and cartoon characters) have spread through the galaxy, seeking new habitable planets and discovering new civilizations. At least one of these civiliations was discovered in book one. A planet with a new sentient species in which Bob has discovered an exceptionally bright and inventive individual he dubs Archimedes.

The many versions of Bob allows for a very fast-paced storyline, hopping from the perspective of one clone to another. Taylor’s writing is bright and funny and the interactions of the Bobs with each other is a lot of fun. But the fun can’t last forever. A new hive-like species is discovered that is building a sphere around the star at the center of their planetary system. To create this they strip other systems of their resources, eating the inhabitants along the way. The question becomes: Can Bob stop them before they move toward earth?

It’s a fun read, with that caveat that these are not books to be read out of order. The book is free on Kindle as of this posting along with both a paperback and audio versions.



The Stranger Within

The Stranger Within, by Kathryn Croft

This is a British mystery written in the first person. Callie Harwell is the narrator, admitting from the first few sentences that she’s a murderer and describing her life as the wife of a man (James) with two sons from his first marriage. That marriage ended with his wife’s death. It’s her second marriage, too. Her first marriage ended in divorce.

Callie is unhappy in her marriage. She loves her husband but the two sons, particularly the older son Dylan, make her life miserable. They’re abusive to her, both emotionally and also physically in minor ways with sly kicks under the table and the like. They also lie to their father regularly about Callie in an attempt to put a wedge between them. Even the elderly neighbor lady doesn’t like her. She and the sons seem to believe James could have done better.

Her only solace is Reese, Dylan’s older friend from school who begins to develop a strong attraction for Callie. Feeling depressed and distant from those in her house Callie begins to have at least physical feelings for Reese. They begin a tryst but Callie soon regrets her actions and tries to withdraw from Reese but the boy is now in love and will not call it quits.

From the first paragraph we know someone dies. Part of the mystery is figuring out who the victim will be, and were I to give much more of a summary it would serve as a spoiler for anyone wanting to take on the book.

It’s a well-written novel. Callie is a realistic character. The narrative switches between her carrying the story along and segments in which she’s interviewed by detectives. These interviews usually open up a new part of the story line.

There’s a secret twist at nearly the last page of the book and as much as I liked the book I found the twist a little hard to take. I don’t think the ultimate unveiling was realistic and for me it was a disappointing ending. The murder is solvee but there are things that just don’t seem to fit with the rest of the book. For a mystery fan it’s a good read but beware the last page.



Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

In this book Neil Gaiman taps Afro-Caribbean legends to tell the tale of Fat Charlie Nancy, who is trying to get by in a less than spectacular life in London when he learns that his father Mr. Nancy has died in Florida. He travels to Florida to take care of the estate where he learns that Mr. Nancy was actually Anansi, a west African god who often appears in the form of a spider. Anansi, we learn from small tales between the chapters that unfold Fat Charlie’s story, is very clever but often uses that cleverness to cause mischief. (Many of the tales are similar to those found in Br’er Rabbit, where the Anansi tales were an inspiration.)

A long time friend of Mr. Nancy also informs Fat Charlie that he has a brother, and that if he wants to meet him he only needs to tell any spider. Fat Charlie does this after returning to London, bringing a visit from his flamboyant and until-now-unknown brother named Spider.

Fat Charlie and Spider go on a binge of alcohol and women to mourn their father’s death. Before he knows it Spider begins literally taking over Fat Charlie’s life, not just showing up at his work when Fat Charlie has too much of a hangover to show up himself but also filling in with Fat Charlie’s fiance.

Through the rest of the book Fat Charlie has to try to get back control of his own life while he also learns more about his father and the true nature of Spider.

This may be the funniest Gaiman book I’ve read, with hilarious characters and wonderful story turns. American Gods inspires awe, The Graveyard Book touches your heart, but this book kept me laughing through the entire book. In fact, I found myself wondering how Gaiman could have missed bringing this kind of humor and flare to Norse Mythology.

I listened to the audiobook which, unlike many others, was read by someone other than Gaiman. I like Gaiman’s reading but he tends to emphasize the lyrical force of his writing at the expense of characterizations. In this book Lenny Henry brings all the characters to life (maybe a bit screechy with some of the women characters) and the feeling of an African storyteller during the Anansi sequences.

It’s a delightful book and one of my new favorites from a bulging Gaiman library.



Vortex (Spin), by Robert Charles Wilson

Once in awhile I will read a book and then re-read it almost immediately to absorb the entire thing. This is one of those books. The beautiful end of the Spin trilogy by Robert Charles Wilson

This book picks up 10,000 years after the middle volume with Turk Findley and Isaac, but brings their stories into the novel in a unique way. A Houston police officer named Bose and a psychiatrist at a state institution, Sandra Cole, become involved with Owen Mather. Owen, not exceptionally intelligent, has been writing long first person narratives set well into the future. These are the stories of Turk, Isaac, and a new character named Allison.

Turk is brought back to life in a desert on the planet of Equatoria where the first book ended and the second book took place. The mysterious protectors of earth, the Hypotheticals, still play a major role in the thinking of humans now spread through the galaxy and on Equatoria a religious group has been waiting and training for the appearance of both Turk and Isaac. It’s the group’s belief that because the portals created by the Hypotheticals, allowing almost instantaneous travel between worlds, are selective in who they let pass (not allowing birds or other creatures) that Turk and Isaac provide the means to contact the Hypotheticals, who continue to hold a god-like mystery in their minds.

The narrative switches between the mystery of Owen, on earth after the protective “Spin” barrier appeared around the planet, and the lives of those living in the far future. Ultimately we find that Owen has been chosen and guided to provide a kind of redemption in a reach across time.

Beautiful prose and compelling characters bring this complicated story to life which ends, ultimately, with the entropic end of the universe. Because of how the characters interact across time and the mystery of what the Hypotheticals are trying to accomplish I think I needed the second reading to draw it all in.  It’s certainly the most amazing multi-book series I’ve read since I zipped through Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos.




The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America: A Novel, by Philip Roth

This book is about 13 years old now but seems to have a particular relevance in today’s political climate with “populist” politicians popping up in both the Americas and Europe, candidates supported by the KKK, and a growing sense of a license for violence against “others”. One of the last books published by Roth, the author combines Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in an alternate history about America’s delayed entry into WWII. This is the reason I included the science fiction tags for the book. In Dick’s alternate America a historical assassination attempt against FDR is successful, leaving the country without his political charisma to lead the country into the war.

Roth’s book is written in memoir style. Roth includes himself in this book about living through the late 30s into the early 40s. He uses the names of his own father and mother (I don’t know enough about him to say whether the brothers he includes were actual figures in his life) with telling bits of texture from his life growing up in Newark, New Jersey, at the end of the Depression. Snippets from baseball games, living near the plant that made the family’s Ipana tooth powder, third-generation Jewish immigrant life in which his family had given up orthodoxy for assimilation.

In this familiar atmosphere there’s a single change that alters their lives. During the 1940 Republican Convention, which went through multiple votes trying to find a candidate to run against Franklin D. Roosevelt, (the real convention chose candidate Wendell Willkie who came into the convention polling at 3%) there’s a staged moment at 3 in the morning when Charles Lindbergh enters the convention in his flight costume. This stirs the tired conventioneers into a complete shift, nominating Lindbergh as the Republican candidate. Lindbergh flies from city to city through America and, despite the polls, snatches FDR’s third term away from him.

This creates an immediate panic within the Jewish community, particularly for Roth’s father Herman. Some powerful rabbinic leaders in the community support Lindbergh despite his many anti-Jewish comments at various America First rallies. Some, including Roth’s mother, begin sending savings to Canadian banks with the plan to escape to Canada should pogroms begin in America. Walter Winchell, jewish and the most prominent columnist of his day, begins a campaign against the new president on his radio broadcast and newspaper columns.

The changes to the family’s life are slow and subtle. Herman Roth, an insurance salesman, is nearly transferred from Newark to an almost entirely gentile city by his company. The family takes a vacation to Washington, DC, where the family faces regular acts of anti-semitism. Violence continues throughout the country, jewish families are migrated to places like Kentucky as part of a new “homesteading” program where they meet with the violence of the KKK, politicians are assassinated or arrested for their “protection”.

It isn’t until Lindbergh’s real motives are revealed that the progression of horrors ends, finally leaving an opening for FDR to return to political life and fulfill his historical third term.

The book serves to offer several important lessons. There will often be populations in the US (as there have been throughout its history) who will be vilified for problems in the country and slandered with half-truths or outright fictions (blood libel comes up in this book). To stop oppressive changes before they become systemic it’s important to stop them in small things within your grasp: nonsensical statements, small incidents of discrimination or racism, small changes to laws that take away freedoms, a focus on all freedoms for all people rather than pet interests or personal freedoms. Voting isn’t a chore, it’s an essential and important act.

The book, while it centers on Roth as observer and narrator, features a broad range of characters, heroic and horrible, who weave through the book with their own perceptions and motives about what is happening in this alternate nation. The ultimate plot against Lindbergh is a bit hard to swallow. Lindbergh was a strange mixture at that time in history. He was a renowned expert in aviation at a time when this was beginning to become an important part of war machinery. Much of his pacifism was actually a pragmatism over whether the allied powers could overcome the sudden rise of the German war machine. At the same time he was an ardent anti-communist and anti-semite. None of the quotes in the book from his speeches are Roth’s invention. On the other hand these things were strong enough to make him the foil in this book without the strange plot twist that Roth introduces to bring the book to a close.

Still, it’s a compelling and observant book, still in print, that may resonate with a reader more now than when it was first released.



Keto-Adapted: Your Guide to Accelerated Weight  Loss and Healthy Healing, by Maria Emmerich

I reached a plateau in my ketogenic dieting and decided I needed some tips and insights to get me moving forward on weight loss again. This book did the trick.

The book is filled with scores of tips on living a ketogenic lifestyle. What I needed to learn and tips that I pulled for myself included:

  1. The ratios of fats/carbs/protein need to stay in balance. Working within 30 grams or less of carbohydrates isn’t enough as the body will also convert protein to glucose. This meant focusing more on my cookbooks and keeping a food journal to track my eating and ratios. (I use the Samsung fitness app.)
  2. Intermittent fasting is useful and easier than it sounds. I’ve stopped eating at 7-8 PM and have several activities after I wake up before eating. That gives me 12 hours of fasting which, after waking, means my body is using its own fat stores for energy.
  3. Small tips like lowering the house thermostat, good for me and the planet as bodies use calories to maintain heat. Cinnamon supplements before meals because once you’re insulin resistant it helps to suppress insulin production so your body produces ketones for energy in place of glucose.

There are things in this book that I probably will never do. Using coconut oil for mouthwash in the morning? No thanks. Not using plastic containers for drinking or food storage? Manufacturers of plastic containers have been eliminating the hormone producing chemicals from their manufacturing. Cooking in plastic is another matter.

But Emmerich goes into great detail on what happens in the body, things to try for specific health needs, and activity suggestions. I pulled a few that were worthwhile for my situation and will go back and consider some more. Another person might choose a whole different collection of bits of advice.

I have a couple of Emmerich’s cookbooks (reviews coming soon) and knew she was committed to this eating program. She also consults across the country and included before and after pictures that people have sent in to her, which helps with encouragement.

The changes I made from the book helped me break the plateau and lose pounds again in a few days. The changes also helped reduce my general appetite. Doing the lifestyle change is easier than explaining it to others, so I’ve stopped mentioning that I’ve been in the kitchen making two weeks worth of “fat bombs” to put in the freezer. Letting people know that 80% of your daily calories come from fats takes more explanation than it’s worth. Just eat, don’t talk about it.

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